Scenes from a Taliban Attack in Afghanistan

Note: Ali Latifi, a freelance journalist based in Doha, was reporting from the scene of a Taliban attack on a hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan last week in which 23 people were killed. He tells the story of the attack through his interaction with Haider, an Afghan who fought against the Soviet invasion but now guards a cell phone tower from threats that include insurgent sabotage.  The story is printed below with permission.

By Ali M. Latifi

Kabul, Afghanistan — Had this been any other Friday, Mohammed Haider would have been rushing from his home in Paghman to the cell phone antenna he guards day in and day out.

Any other Friday and the grey-haired Haider would be watching hundreds of cars on their way to picnics in the scenic Qargha lake and by the fountains of Paghman, a town just outside Kabul.

But this wasn’t any other Friday, and Haider, after being kept up all night from gunshots and blasts at the nearby Spozhmai Hotel, headed to his post guarding an Etisalat telecom tower.

There he stood, as he always has, atop a hill overlooking the hotel that went from being the site of a joyful twenty-second birthday party to the scene of the first Taliban attack specifically targeting civilians since the latest round of war erupted in Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001.

From 3 a.m. to just before noon on Friday, June 22 , he greeted journalists – foreign and local alike – and even some Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), offering them tea and water before they made the journey downhill towards the hotel.

Amid the blasts and gunfire, Haider, with his two dogs by his side, looked on as the usually safe town known for weekend gatherings underwent its fourth attack in 10 years.

“I was 18 years old when the Russians invaded. Since then, fighting has been a part of my life,” Haider said as he pointed to the horizon.

Looking onward, he described the locations of Russian outposts that used to dot the three surrounding hills.

It was then that he had first picked up a gun and he hadn’t relinquish it until the arrival of the Taliban.

Even after sending his family to neighbouring Pakistan in 1981, Haider would still make it across the porous border to fight the forces of the Russian invasion and eventually opposing Mujhaideen groups.

He looked forlornly at the smoke rising from the hotel and the empty concession stands that line the path to the Spozhmai Hotel and said, “But I got tired of fighting, I got tired of the gun.”

“I got tired of this,” he added, as the boom of an explosion echoed off the surrounding hillside.

As the 90-degree sun shone on those standing around his kolbeh, cottage, Haider declared, “I’ll be back.”

For several minutes reports kept coming in — four attackers in chadoris, up to 300 hostages, 12 civilian deaths, a boy dragged out on a stretcher with a cigarette still in his hand – and then came an old man in a white piran tomban, the traditional Afghan dress, and a grey vest with three plastic jugs in his hands.

“It’s hot, I brought water,” Haider said as the journalists who had been running up and down the hill dodging gunfire and rockets took giant sips before pouring the cherished water of Paghman, known for its freshness and clarity, on their sweat-soaked faces.

Another blast. More gunfire.

As we moved closer to the top of the hill standing on the edge of a sunken concrete volleyball court, the sounds of bullets and rockets seemed closer than ever. Almost as if they were flying directly overhead.

Haider quickly told the journalists and local onlookers to disperse.

“When I went to get the water the soldiers asked why I was here. I told them that I guard the antenna and I was coming to fetch water for the journalists atop the hill,” Haider said as we stood together in a brief moment of silence in the 11-hour attack.

As Haider collected the water, he was warned again that if anything happened to him the soldiers could do little for the 50-year-old man.

“The blood will be on your head, no one else’s they say,” a soldier, not much older than Haider when he first picked up a gun, warned the old man.

“This is your job, guarding the people. Mine is watching that tower and the people around it. Let me do my job like you do yours,” Haider said as he headed back up that hill towards the red-and-white antenna and the people waiting around it.